Indigenous students ask Canadian universities to divest from the Thirty Meter Telescope

Indigenous students and academics across Canada are calling on their universities to divest from a project that would see the construction of another telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Hundreds of Indigenous people in Hawaii are protesting construction of the telescope

Demonstrators gather to block a road at the base of Hawaii's tallest mountain, Mauna Kea, on July 15 in Hawaii. Demonstrators are protesting the construction of a giant telescope on land that some Native Hawaiians consider sacred. (Caleb Jones/The Associated Press)

Indigenous students and academics across Canada are calling on their universities to divest from a project that would see the construction of a giant telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

It's called the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

Since July 15, hundreds of Indigenous people in Hawaii have protested against its construction on the mountain they consider sacred. 

"Indigenous people across the country stand with each other no matter what side of the [Canada-U.S.] border we fall," said Tomas Jirousek, the Indigenous affairs commissioner at the Students' Society of McGill University in Montreal.

Jirousek said he's just as concerned about the telescope in Hawaii as he would be if it were built on sacred land in Canada. It's why he's condemning McGill's affiliation with the project, and hopes to coordinate a letter campaign with student societies from universities that would use the telescope.

"We are taking action and hopefully holding our universities to account when it comes to standing complicit," said Jirousek.

How are Canadian universities involved?

An artist's rendition shows the planned Thirty Meter Telescope which would become the world's largest if completed. (Thirty Meter Telescope/Associated Press)

The Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), which includes 20 universities, has been a partner in the telescope project since its inception in 2003. 

In 2015, former prime minister Stephen Harper pledged $243.5 million over 10 years for the construction of the $1.4-billion US telescope. The investment  — controlled by the National Research Council of Canada —  secured ACURA members and other Canadian astronomers 15 per cent of viewing time once the telescope is built. 

Conflict with reconciliation, say academics

Ashley Bach, an alumna of McGill and the former president of its Indigenous Student Alliance, said McGill's support for the telescope on land that is sacred to Indigenous peoples in Hawaii contradicts the university's work responding to calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (TRC). 

"Just because it isn't happening in Canada, doesn't mean that it doesn't matter," said Bach.

Curran Jacobs, a Mohawk woman from Kahnawake, Que., also sent her concerns to her alma mater and ACURA member Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Que.

"The point of my letter was to ask the university to think about what they mean when they say they want to seek reconciliation, and to really take stock of all of their actions," said Jacobs.

Curran Jacobs. (Submitted by Curran Jacobs)

"The only way that big changes can happen is if we come together and pull the weight that we have. Me writing a letter is the only weight I have to pull, universities have the ability to be able to talk to this association and get them to pull out."

Both were inspired by Eve Tuck, a Unangax̂ associate professor at the University of Toronto who wrote a similar letter to her employer. 

"This situation reveals that reconciliation may not yet be deeply or systematically implemented by Canadian universities," she said.

"Universities cannot claim to be reconciling with Indigenous communities when they are using armed police to intimidate, arrest, and threaten Indigenous peoples in the name of research."

The support is not going unnoticed by activists on the ground in Hawaii.

Noelani Goodyear-Ka'ōpua, left, an associate professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, protests construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the dormant Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. (Submitted by Noelani Goodyear-Ka'ōpua)

"We're just incredibly grateful for the shows of support and solidarity that we've seen from around the world and these kinds of statements," said Noelani Goodyear-Ka'ōpua, an associate professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, who has been among the demonstrators at Mauna Kea.

She said if Canadian institutions divest, it could be what "makes the difference."

"If Canadian institutions were to divest, that could be the leg out from under the table that causes the whole thing to fall, so we're grateful for that support and hope that it continues," said  Goodyear-Ka'ōpua.

Universities respond

The University of Toronto issued a statement on Monday saying that the university "does not condone the use of police force in furthering its research objectives." McGill and Bishop's did not respond to CBC News' request for comment, and directed questions to Donald Brooks, executive director of ACURA.

Brooks forwarded a statement the association released on July 24 about the protests, saying it wants "to ensure the safety of all involved and to find a peaceful path forward that respects the wishes of Native Hawaiians," some of whom support the project.

A police officer gestures at demonstrators blocking a road at the base of Hawaii's tallest mountain on July 15. (Caleb Jones/The Associated Press)

"The Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA) and its members believe in the science behind the project," the statement said. "We want the project to be a source of pride for Hawaiians and to progress in the spirit of respect and reconciliation; there is still more to be done in that regard."

About a dozen other observatories are located on the mountaintop on the Big Island of Hawaii to take advantage of low humidity and a lack of light pollution. 


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.